Physician supply forecast: better than peering in a crystal ball?

Hum Resour Health. 2009 Feb 13;7:10. doi: 10.1186/1478-4491-7-10.


Background: Anticipating physician supply to tackle future health challenges is a crucial but complex task for policy planners. A number of forecasting tools are available, but the methods, advantages and shortcomings of such tools are not straightforward and not always well appraised. Therefore this paper had two objectives: to present a typology of existing forecasting approaches and to analyse the methodology-related issues.

Methods: A literature review was carried out in electronic databases Medline-Ovid, Embase and ERIC. Concrete examples of planning experiences in various countries were analysed.

Results: Four main forecasting approaches were identified. The supply projection approach defines the necessary inflow to maintain or to reach in the future an arbitrary predefined level of service offer. The demand-based approach estimates the quantity of health care services used by the population in the future to project physician requirements. The needs-based approach involves defining and predicting health care deficits so that they can be addressed by an adequate workforce. Benchmarking health systems with similar populations and health profiles is the last approach. These different methods can be combined to perform a gap analysis. The methodological challenges of such projections are numerous: most often static models are used and their uncertainty is not assessed; valid and comprehensive data to feed into the models are often lacking; and a rapidly evolving environment affects the likelihood of projection scenarios. As a result, the internal and external validity of the projections included in our review appeared limited.

Conclusion: There is no single accepted approach to forecasting physician requirements. The value of projections lies in their utility in identifying the current and emerging trends to which policy-makers need to respond. A genuine gap analysis, an effective monitoring of key parameters and comprehensive workforce planning are key elements to improving the usefulness of physician supply projections.